The Oldest Buddhist Sculpture: The Discovery of 2nd Century Buddhist Sculpture in Celebes

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The Oldest Buddhist Sculpture: The Discovery of 2nd Century Buddhist Sculpture in Celebes

In 1921, a bronze Buddhist sculpture was found in estuary of Karama village, district. Sempaga, Mamuju, South Sulawesi (Ujung Pandang) – Indonesia. this Buddhist sculpture was dated to the 2nd century AD or older. Its physical condition is slightly incomplete, and the further excavation was held to find the complete fragments as well as to find evidence of Buddhist settlements in that site. However, the excavation did not succeed in giving definitive clue to reveal the existence of this Buddhist sculpture.

Based on the location of the sculpture excavated, the bronze Buddhist sculpture was deliberately placed facing the sea that was believed to guard the people from enemies while protecting the sailors. These courses of action are prevalent in the practice of the Buddhists in mainland India.1) In 1931, the sculpture was ever exhibited at the Exposition Coloniale International or the International Colonial Exhibition in Paris – French. However, on June 28, 1931, this sculpture, along with other artifacts from the Dutch East Indies. was caught on fire. Now, the piece is preserved in the National Museum of Indonesia with inventory number 6057. Overall, the condition of the sculpture can still be observed, although some parts are missing and parts of the thigh up to feet are truncated. The position of the body is shown standing upright, with his right hand is held upright in “abhayamudra” demeanor. His left hand holds the edge of the robe; his curly hair covers the head, and his neck is depicted with three striped, while his face is round shape. His right shoulder appears opened and left shoulder is closed as far as the arms of his hand, while his small mouth has thick lips. An idiosyncrasy of this Buddhist sculpture is the high level of the quality of carving his robe. The robe was finely carved in lines and dangling to down, and one of the folds of the robe was held by his left hand. (see fig. 1: Buddhist Sculpture, courtesy: National Museum of Indonesia)

Based upon the writer’s observation, this bronze Buddhist sculpture represents as Amarāvatī अमरावती style, an Indian sculpture in the Andhra region of southeastern India from about the 2nd century BC to the end of the 3rd century AD, during the rule of the Sātavāhana dynasty. According to the Buddhist conception, this abhayamudra hand gesture symbolizes the meaning of dispelling fear. This sculpture also has the similar characteristics to those of Dipangkara (India) sculptures found in South Sumatra (Palembang) during the Srivijaya kingdom. The Buddhist sculpture of Dipangkara was considered as a protector of sailors.2)

Moreover, the present Buddhist sculpture style has a special characteristic. Its special characteristic shows that the folds of his robes were executed in thin, flat, and highly smooth grooves. These are all characteristics commonly depicted on the robes of a Buddhist priest. In fact, according to some scholars and historians, the characteristics of the Amarāvatī sculpture are evident on the current Buddhist sculpture. His face atmosphere seemed to show the meditation or dhayanimudra, and his robe is dangling down to the ankles as if it is fused with his body, so that the physically appearance of sculpture is transparent, where his body shape is visible from the outside.3)

The present bronze Buddhist sculpture is a Buddhist art that was imported and brought by sailors from other regions as it was a released sculpture from its past owners.4) This piece could be also considered as Dipangkara Buddhist sculpture, and it is the best Buddhist sculpture art among other Buddhist sculptures archaeologically found in Indonesia. The piece is executed with highly degree of creativity of religious art. There is any similar style of sculptures found in Jepara, in Manjargading, Central Java, and in Dong Doung in South Vietnam, as well as in Borneo (Kalimantan – Indonesia). All of them are considered to have been originated from the Southern Indian and Ceylon styles.5)

The powerful Satavahana Kings of South India were great influencer in archipelago from 2nd century B.C to 2nd century A.D. they studded their power with several splendid Buddhist monuments which were richly carved, like on the present piece. The finding of this bronze Dipangkara sculpture illustrates that the Buddhist religion greatly flourished in Celebes. The island of Sulawesi was also an international trade route in the early BC.  Through trade, alliance and political expansion, the contact between Celebes and other countries, especially India, was established. From this contact, the relationship indirectly influenced culture. In subsequent developments, the culture from outside was adapted to the needs of the local community in archipelago.


  1. Fontein, Jan, et. Al, Kesenian Indonesia Purba (Ancient Indonesian Art), New York and Jakarta: Franklin Book Programs, Inc, 1972, p. 33.Ibid, p. 149

  2. Aravamuthan, MA, B.L, Potrait Sculpture in South India, London: The India Society 3 Victoria Street, 1931, fig. 1.

  3. Setyawati Sulaiman, Studi Ikonografi Masa Sailendra di Jawa dan Sumatera, PIA 1 Cibulun, 21 – 25, Februari 1977, Jakarta, Pusat Penelitian

  4. Arkeologi Nasional, 1980, p.377.

  5. Rowland, J.R. Benyamin, The Evolution of the Buddha Image, New York and Japan: The Asia Society Inc., 1963, p.12.



The Oldest Buddhist Sculpture: The Discovery of 2nd Century Buddhist Sculpture in Celebes